Archive for April, 2009

There has been a lot of fuss going on lately regarding Stephen Wolfram’s ambitious project to create a comprehensive "computational knowledge engine." called Wolfram/Alpha.

UPDATE: Stephan Wolfram now also started a blog at http://blog.wolframalpha.com/

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University hosted yesterday 27 April 2009 a sneak preview of the Wolfram|Alpha system.

This was a full 2 hours webcast, with no screenshots (at least not during the webcast), just a talking head for 2 hours and Q&A from the audience.

I finally got hold of a screenshot via Techcrunch:


There is already some good coverage on this by Larry Dignan, Editor in Chief of ZDNet, on his blog here.

Larry summarizes well:

“Four big pieces are behind Wolfram/Alpha:

  • Curated data: Free, licensed and feed data. Running through human and automated process to verify the data and make sure it’s “clean and curatable.” At some point, you need a human domain expert. 
  • Algorithms: Wolfram/Alpha uses a bevy of algorithms including 5 million to 6 million of mathematical code.
  • Linguistics: The goal is to interpret free-form language processing. Wolfram said Wolfram/Alpha uses various components and techniques to figure out what people are actually asking. Part of that process is filtering out fluff.  ”We’ve been pretty good at removing linguistic fluff,” said Wolfram, he said people eventually get to the point where they speak as if they were talking to an expert. “People quickly begin to just type in concepts as they come to them.”
  • Presentation: Algorithms try to pick out what’s important to the searcher. Again, Wolfram noted that human-aided algorithms are needed.

Instead of delivering up a bunch of links, the Wolfram/Alpha search engine tries to put a narrative around a user’s question and allow them to drill down. Indeed, the result presentation features graphics and other computational features. Think part calculator, part search engine. “

Interesting to see that Google upgraded and announced some new features during the Wolfram demo – and thereby taken all the attention away from Wolfram back to Google, and Wolfram fires back a couple of minutes/hours later. Some other coverage about this here and here and on Techcrunch.

The webcast itself was pretty boring. After 43 min of monologue, Stephen Wolfram opens the floor for questions. And the first question was right on.

A journalist from O’Reilly wanted to know more about the consistency of data, and whether you can trust the algorythm this much. Answer; what we are doing is creating an (or the ?) authoritative source of data. Mechanism for people to contribute data. And Wolfram to “audit” that data. Source identification is the key challenge in all this. All this makes me think of Ken Steel BSR (Basic Semantic Repository) Beacon project in the mid 90’ies, where he would be THE owner of the semantic repository that’s going to keep all tags and semantic meanings of date being carried around in XML-like tagged data.

Then David Weinberger asked if and when this will be opened up (see also my yesterday’s post on “think big – think open”. His question was in fact 3-fold. Open through:

  1. API’s: 3 levels of API’s: presentation, underlying XML, and symbolic expressions of underlying Mathematica source data.
  2. Metadata: when they open-up, plan is to expose some of the ontology through RDF.
  3. Upload personal data to the system: intention to have a professional version of Wolfram/Alpha, subscription based.

David Bermaste: what with questions/answers were scientists have difference in opinion, such as “Are certain classes of PCB’s human cancerogeneous ?” or in other words “who has the real truth ?”

Who is this for ? Kids or scientists ? Answer: “To make expert knowledge available to anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Wow. That’s ambitious.

What in case the question does not make sense ? For example “what is the 300th biggest state in Europe ?”. At this stage and in this version Wolfram/Alpha does not return you a result.

The challenge also seems to be how you keep the info and the universes of knowledge up to date. Today this project has +/- 100 people working on it (last period maybe 250), but what army of people do you need when this really goes live big way ? Answer: it’s probably going to end up with a 1,000 people. Sounds a bit underestimated to me if you ask.

In essence, all this is about Knowledge Management. And i know quite some companies that would be interested in throwing all their unstructured data and have an engine that can make meaning out of all that data. So the professional version may be up to something. But in it’s current state for the public in general to compete head to head with Google ? No, i don’t think so.

I suggest you also have a look at Mendeley, a start-up (initially from Germany, but now based in London), use parse and discover patterns in university research papers, but just think how this could be applied to basically any type of information. One of their VC’s is an ex Last.fm and ex-Skype (and also a professor or even a doctor in Economics at the University of Hamburg) and it’s interesting to see how these young net-generation guys are capable of telling their story in less then 2 minutes, with monetization topic included, and still leave you with a hunger and curiosity to want to know more.

I never got this thrill/feeling of “want to know more” during the 2 hour Wolfram webcast. I felt bored, and was asking myself all the time the question “what have i missed here ?” and a sort of compassion and respect for somebody’s lifework of the last 25-30 years.  I was also somewhat disturbed by what i consider a form of self-complacency, bit out of the ivory tower type of discourse, not really accessible for non-experts.

This Stephen is definitely a very smart and wise man, and it’s clear he is passionate about his work and is in search of “intellectual satisfaction”, but i am afraid he won’t be up to the power and sexiness of Google and many other newcomers on this stage.

But does this withstand what i would call the  “Jeff Jarvis’ Google Test” about new types of relationship, architecture, publicness, elegant organization, new economy and business reality, new attitude, ethics and last but not least speed ?

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As a start of a new series, i will regularly post examples of old-new game economy.

As a starter, a slide i once made as input to my Leading by Being Coming-Out. For more info on Leading by Being, please go to my very first post on this blog.

On the left the “old” culture, on the right the “new” culture.

LBB Coming-Out V8 - Beyond Corporate Culture slide

Today, i saw a perfect example of Old Game when looking at the chaos at the Fortis General Assembly. The attitude of lawyer Mondrikamen was appalling, and it was very disappointing to see a man of that caliber and education misbehaving and playing populist techniques.

Old Game of today: Modrikamen at the Fortis General Assembly on 28 April 2009


http://www.holding.fortis.com/shareholders/webcast.asp or in the meantime the news-site of Belgian (Flemish) Television. Use this link, and start somewhere half-way the video.

New Game of today: also in banking. The new release of Mint.com, a company introducing innovation week after week for the interest and added value of its customers:


And it is their own CEO delivering the demos. Have a peek at it and let me know when we’re going to have this sort of bank-service from one of our European banks.

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My friend xstof pointed me at ThinkBigManifesto. I started this blog with “Inspire others to Dream”. It could have been “Inspire others to Think Big”. And the advertising text of ThinkBigManifesto suggests: “Big thinking is open and generous, discerning and judicious, yet not judgmental. Big thinking is not excessive, nor is it about the pursuit of excess. Rather, it is moderate.”

Google is big. Google is about Thinking Big. But what would it take to become a Google-Killer ? “More transparency and less opaqueness, more open”, says Jeff Jarvis in his short video posting on www.bigthink.com about the Google Killer. Jeff Jarvis is quite known from his bestseller “What would Google do”.

But how open can you go ? Whereas in the past “standards” or “protocols” were focusing only on the connectivity (how to get data from A to B) and syntactic (and sometimes semantic) standards for data standards and “messages”, today we have open standards for all layers.

I recently found this very interesting deck by Micah Laaker from Yahoo! I have to confess that these Yahoo! folks seem to be on top of everything these days. Also have a look at Yahoo Pipes if you have the time. Especially if one starts thinking about being open in a cloud and/or SaaS type of private or public community.

Micah basically proposes an updated set of standards for many more layers than we used to think of (with courtesy of http://developer.yahoo.net/blog/archives/2009/04/baychi_open.html):

1. Open Source (PHP, Hadoop)
2. Open Infrastructure (Amazon EC2 & S3)
3. Open Architecture (Firefox, YQL Open Tables)
4. Open Standards (XML, JSON)
5. Open Ontology (Microformats, RDFa). See also my recent blog on Smart Data and the OpenCalais project.
6. Open Access (Twitter, Yahoo! BOSS)
7. Open Canvas (Facebook, Yahoo! Application Platform)
8. Open Content (Google Reader, My Yahoo!)
9. Open Mic (WordPress, YouTube)
10. Open Forum (Digg, Yahoo! Buzz)
11. Open Door (Get Satisfaction)
12. Open Borders (OPML)
13. Open Identity (OpenID, AttributeExchange); btw have you noticed that Facebook is one of the first true big players to adopt OpenID ? Not as an Identity issuer, but accepting OpenID’s issued by other big players such as Windows Live ID, Yahoo ID, Google ID

Slide #43 gives a good overview which standards bring most value to what audience (users/developers).

This presentation was delivered on 14 April at BayCHI http://www.baychi.org The meeting Report by student Gregory Cabrera ends with the appropriate questions:

• Does the system need to be open in order for users (and developers) to derive value?

• Is creativity an important feature in the design of a platform?

• What are the features of a successful, creative, open system platform?

• How creative would you like your users (or developers) to be?

• How would you inspire creativity in the development of a product or service?

Imagine a business to business cloud. What of these or other standards would make your offering truly open ? Feel free to comment or to come up with “open” suggestions.

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No, this is not the name of the latest song i have been teaching to my 3 1/2 year old daughter.

I am just going completely crazy these days about touch-driven devices, and found some new acronyms in this space:

  1. NUI: Natural User Interface. Examples are Surface and Jeff Han’s touch interfaces
  2. XUI: XML User Interface

So, i decided to invent my own. TUI: “Touch User Interfaces”, but a check in Wikipedia revealed somebody else already coined that acronym. I just wanted to add more touch or even no-touch as in gestures.

As i have some days off this week, I have some extra time to introduce the topic with some parodies on well know advertisements. This will also please my readers who ask me questions such as “why do we need all these computers ?”

Please enjoy the advantages of the Mac Air:

Why spent 300 € on a Wii Fit, if 3 € would give you the real thing ?

Surface on its best:

Or this one: Put a Surface in your pocket:

But seriously, how could these devices used in Business ? Let’s have a look at what Barclays is doing with it:

Or at Identity Mine: a Touch-catalogue and Blackberry becomes check-out for Elektra, a big electro-shop in South-America (sorry did not succeed to embed that video).

Or let’s throw in some “gestures” at GestureTek:

And from the same GestureTek: full body Avatar control. Check out this link with plenty of other demos.

But what if real and virtual get really mixed together. Have a look at the concept videos below:


XUI/NUI/YUI at Work:

Or get completely immersed. Check out how EonReality is pushing the limits. Here on their homepage and here in this video. It’s getting so real that you almost get sea-sick.

Amazing 3D immersion technology from IDEO Labs on Vimeo.

Who said that singularity (the moment man & machine truly blend together) will happen in 2030 ?

I think it will be much sooner.

In 2030, having a brain implant will be as cool as having an iPhone today. Who in his right mind would have predicted in 1990 more than one cell phone per person ? That’s also only 20 years ago.

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Smart Data are the promise of the Semantic Web.

And yes, i heard the pitches from Tim-Berners Lee. But that sounded all so far away and abstract, and i could not imagine what it would give me as added value.

But the video & site below put this into a competitive advantage context and that’s where it gets interesting.


Check out the OpenCalais project: fantastic site with many interesting other links to semantic web related sites, blogs, etc. This will take me week to digest.

And these are not some geeks putting together something. This is an initiative powered by Thomson Reuters: “The Calais initiative supports the interoperability of content and advances Thomson Reuters mission to deliver pervasive, intelligent information. It builds on the company’s investment in semantic technologies and Natural Language Processing to offer free metadata generation services, developer tools and an open standard for the generation of semantic content. It also provides publishers with an automatic connection to the Linked Data cloud and introduces a global metadata transport layer that helps them leverage content consumers like search engines to reach more downstream readers.”

I decided to try the DocViewer at http://viewer.opencalais.com/ and i cut & pasted the full text of my recent blog on “My new desktop: touch and 3D of course” and hit the submit button:


What i get back is amazing:


The unstructured data of my blog are parsed, patterns are recognized and semantic data is added. All this can now programmatically exploited as the APIs are published.

Imagine combining this power with drag & drop mash-up techniques such as Yahoo Pipes or similar.

Or imagine using this to feed info from financial data reference sources into your financial planning or even trading rooms. I recently have seen a similar demo, with very powerful multilingual parsing and pattern recognition of unstructured data, but this is the first time i see something that has the potential to go mainstream very fast.

PS: some folks ask me where i find these interesting links. Well, i spent quite some time researching on the web of course. But i also have some friendly secret sources. Friends that just share a link via Twitter or mail, and who themselves have no time or appetite to make a blog out of it. The subject for this post was kindly provided “xstof”

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Looking for a nice free tool to capture parts of screens, make a screen video tutorial, share this via the web, integrated with Facebook, YouTube, etc ?

Go Jing.

And the tutorials are super. This is how software always should be.

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There are so many things going on in desktop space.

In a previous blog, i already pointed to some examples on how touch, screen, and gestures are coming together.

I am an ex-Microsoft employee and still have some Redmond blood in my veins – so I am biased.

At home, I am currently on a Vista Home Basic, running on an HP-Mini, but i have to confess the temptation to switch to Mac. But it is so more expensive, and as far as i am personally concerned, not worth it (yet).

So yes, the UI of the Mac is cooler than Vista. Haven’t seen Windows 7 yet.

In the meantime some other guys have great ideas that Microsoft should jump upon.

Here is BumpTop 1.0 – You can download it  today if you want to and find more info at BumpTop.

And there seems to be something cooking in Redmond. Have a look at the following trailer on the Copenhagen Project.

A warning: this looks like a typical very commercial Microsoft launch video.

However, it’s not done by Microsoft.

Copenhagen is a User Experience concept designed by Cullen Dudas and it’s done in Flash.

In his own words: “It is unique in the fact that it manages to bring together classic design, contemporary design, usability, and art.
Copenhagen shatters the composite prototypical event patterns people have developed for their OS, Windows. It is a collision of months of research, high visibility, proper affordance, accurate conceptual models, visceral experience, behavioral experience, and reflective experience, all coming together to create an amazing user experience.”

You can Google Cullen Dudas for yourself, but in case you are lazy, Here is an interesting interview with Cullen Dudas. And this is his LinkedIn profile.

Oops ! He’s a student ! He’s not even working for Microsoft ! Hire that guy ! Or imagine what would happen if Microsoft went open-source and tapped into the creativity well.

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